Title deeds from Raper and Fovargue of Battle, solicitors.

Item date: 1589-1834
Grant Value: £1,750
Item cost: £1,750
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: East Sussex, Brighton and Hove Record Office
Town/City: Lewes
County: East Sussex

Anna Manthorpe, Archivist, writes: In 2018 the East Sussex Record Office (now East Sussex Brighton and Hove Record Office) received a grant of £1,736 towards the purchase at auction of five lots of documents, including manorial records, which had been salvaged in about 1970 by the vendor, then a young articled clerk, from the stables in the office yard at Upper Lake, Battle. These are now listed as ACC 13107.

Two years later the same vendor discovered a further deed box which he had overlooked and contacted ESBHRO with a view to negotiating a private sale instead of putting it up for auction. Then Covid-19 intervened, and it was not until the summer of 2021 that it was possible to inspect the new material, which was offered to the office for £1,750. We were delighted to receive the continued support of FNL for this purchase.

It was very exciting to examine the contents of the box, which was tightly packed with over 100 documents, mostly title deeds, ranging in date from 1589 to 1845. These represent many of Raper and Fovargue’s major clients. A large bundle of deeds for an estate at Netherfield Hill in Mountfield and Battle contains a map of 1623 drawn by the Sandhurst cartographer Martin Pierce, on its purchase by Isaac Hay, whose family owned Glyndebourne on the South Downs. Another bundle reveals that the Nicoll family of Mountfield Place, whose estate included an ironworks, was heavily encumbered by debt in the 17th century.

As one might expect from an archive of prominent Battle solicitors, the richest seam of material relates to the Webster family of Battle Abbey. In 1721 the estate was purchased from Viscount Montague by the London financier Sir Thomas Webster. As well as deeds which document the augmentation of the estate, there is a fascinating inventory of the Abbey, listing the contents of 37 rooms which gives insights into the lives of the residents. This was made over four days in September 1751 following the death of Sir Thomas in May of that year.

Pictures in the Great Parlour includes ‘one battle-piece, a stag-hunting, Perseus and Andromeda, a melancholy merchant, two pictures of still life, a fruit-piece, two landscapes, a philosopher at study, a picture of a man shot with an arrow, and a Lucretia’. 

Despite the rather dolorous picture collection, the Abbey was the centre of the Battle social scene with Sir Thomas playing the convivial host, and the family of John Collier of Hastings were constant visitors, as mentioned in their letters which are held by the Record Office.

Gaming seems to have featured strongly with a billiard table, a backgammon board and a shuffleboard table. Not a single book is listed in the library, although possibly these were separately appraised. The library was in fact more of an armoury, with two blunderbusses, a brass barrel gun by Jackson, and a pair of pistols by Griffin, a broad-sword, and three bullet-moulds.

The estate’s interest in the Battle gunpowder works is evident from ‘two powder model mill models’, a model of a crane and ’28 iron joints for coal-boring’, all tucked away with fishing and warren-nets in the garret over the study.

The family preoccupation with explosives very nearly had fatal consequences. In January 1743, Mary Collier, who was staying at the Abbey, wrote to her mother ‘Mr Godfrey Webster [the younger son of Sir Thomas] got up yesterday morning with an intent to go a shooting and put half a pound of powder over a chaffing dish of coals to dry while he wrote two pretty long letters to go by the post, which when he had done went to stir the powder.  At the instant the plate melted and immediately it blew up, threw him senceless on the floor, burst open the door and went out of another room window. He is miserably burnt in face, neck and hands, so that his cloaths was obliged to be cut off by bits, but the greatest danger is his eyes which they are very much afraid he will lose, though Dr Young gives great hopes of them when the inflammation is over, but at present they are intirely gone’ (SAY 1794). Fortunately, Godfrey seems to have recovered well from his injuries. 

Many of the Abbey contents are described as ‘old’ and the total value was £1081 8s 11d – not a very high amount for such a notable residence. Sir Thomas left substantial debts, and a year after his death Horace Walpole observed that the grounds and what has been the park lie in a vile condition (Duchess of Cleveland, History of Battle Abbey, p 207, 1877).

It would have been sad indeed if these escapees from a major solicitor’s archive held at ESBHRO had been lost, and we are most grateful to the FNL for their support.

Item Provenance
Bought on 24 June 2021 by private treaty sale